#15 Big Sugar Borrowing Tactics from Big Tobacco

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reported in June 2014 that “food and beverage manufacturers along with industry-supported organizations such as trade associations, front groups, and public relations firms” have actively sought to ensure that Americans continue to consume sugar at high levels. The sugar industry has adopted many of the same tactics previously developed and employed by the tobacco industry, including attacking scientific evidence; spreading misinformation through industry websites, research institutes, and trade associations to deceive the public; deploying industry scientists; influencing academia; and undermining policy.

For example, in 2003 the World Health Organization (WHO) was to publish its Global Health Strategies on Diet and Health (GHSDH), which included a report that recommended lowering sugar consumption. In response, the Sugar Association—which represents sugar cane and sugar beet producers and refiners—threatened to “exercise every avenue available . . . including asking congressional appropriators to challenge future [WHO] funding.” When the GHSDH was released the following year, it did not include the recommendation on reduced sugar consumption. In 2009, Coca-Cola, Pepsi Co., and the American Beverage Association spent over $37 million to lobby against a proposed federal sugar-sweetened beverage tax. And in 2010, food and beverage companies, along with related trade associations, made “substantial political contributions” to members of the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, which had responsibility for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). Among other goals, the HHFKA sought to implement healthier school lunches, for example by eliminating sugary drinks.

The UCS report recommended greater accountability and transparency combined with science-based policy to counter the sugar industry’s aims.

In March 2015, researchers at University of California, San Francisco, published a report based on sugar industry documents that reveal how the industry “worked closely with the National Institutes of Health in the 1960s and ’70s to develop a federal research program focused on approaches other than sugar reduction to prevent tooth decay in American children.” The authors analyzed 319 internal sugar industry documents from 1959 to 1971 and National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) documents to show how the sugar industry’s interaction with the NIDR altered the research priorities of the institute’s National Caries (Tooth Decay) Program (NCP).

The UCSF study showed that the sugar industry could not deny the scientific evidence regarding the role of sucrose in tooth decay. Instead, the industry adopted a strategy “to deflect attention to public health interventions that would reduce the harms of sugar consumption rather than restricting intake.” Industry tactics included funding a vaccine against tooth decay, even though the vaccine had questionable potential for widespread use; cultivation of relationships with NIDR leadership; and submission of a report to the NIDR that became the foundation of the first request for proposals issued for the NCP. The 1971 NCP first request for research proposals from scientists directly incorporated 78 percent of the trade organization’s own research priorities.

“These tactics are strikingly similar to what we saw in the tobacco industry in the same era,” said Stanton A. Glantz, one of the study’s coauthors and a pioneer in exposing tobacco industry tactics. “Our findings are a wake-up call for government officials charged with protecting the public health, as well as public health advocates, to understand that the sugar industry, like the tobacco industry, seeks to protect profits over public health.”

Tooth decay, though largely preventable, remains the leading chronic disease among children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “The dental community has always known that preventing tooth decay required restricting sugar intake,” said the UCSF study’s first author Cristin Kearns. “It was disappointing to learn that the policies we are debating today could have been addressed more than 40 years ago.”

“Added Sugar, Subtracted Science: How Industry Obscures Science and Undermines Public Health Policy on Sugar,” Union of Concerned Scientists, June 2014, http://www.ucsusa.org/center-for-science-and-democracy/sugar-industry-undermines-public-health-policy.html#.VRdgI0K3BUQ.

Kristen Bole, “‘Sugar Papers’ Reveal Industry Role in 1970s Dental Program,” University of California, San Francisco, March 10, 2015, https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2015/03/123636/“sugar-papers”-reveal-industry-role-1970s-dental-program.

Student Researcher: Kaitlin Allerton (College of Marin)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)